SALT LAKE CITY — Homelessness isn’t strictly an urban issue. And it does not neatly confine itself to boundaries.
Data collected by The Road Home’s intake workers demonstrate that its shelters serve homeless people from every city in Salt Lake County and every county in Utah. For that matter, they come from every state in the country.
“There’s no doubt we have people from all over, with the majority of them are locals or certainly Utahns,” says Matt Minkevitch, executive director of The Road Home.
Recently, mayors in Salt Lake County agreed to help share the cost of providing services for homeless people. Every city and unincorporated area of Salt Lake County will appropriate 35 cents per capita to help fund services, under a proposal recently endorsed by the Salt Lake County Council of Governments.
Since taking office in 2008, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker said he has become acutely aware of the significant resources the city, county, state and a handful of other cities were devoting to the support of the homeless services in the city.
As the state’s capital city, “we are rightfully so putting a lot of resources into facilities and services for the homeless. I’ve also known that this is not a Salt Lake City issue solely,” Becker said.
The economic downturn created significantly higher demand for services due to job losses and people losing their housing.
“Obviously, the needs have increased, and that has dramatically put more strain on us and others,” he said.
Becker and his staff began putting together data to present to the Council of Governments last winter.
“There was a very favorable response. They said, 'Yeah, we’d be happy to look at this and look how we could do it,'" Becker said.
The COG recently agreed to participate financially, with the caveat that the new funding stream would not supplant existing funding for facilities and services. Each city council must approve the plan.
The Road Home’s numbers require careful examination, Minkevitch said. Someone who lists a California city as their previous ZIP code might be a native Utahn who lost a job or housing while living out of state.
“Sometimes it just means they’re on their way back from where they came from,” he said.
Someone who lists the ZIP code of a Utah city that has above-average per capita incomes might have been a couch surfer at a friend’s house. Families may have been doubled up in single-family home.
Still, there is a cost associated with providing services, regardless where people last considered home, he said.
The proposal to the COG, he said, acknowledges a shared responsibility.
While most city officials across the valley were somewhat aware of the large cross-section of people who are clients of agencies that serve the homeless, Becker’s approach clearly stimulated a conversation “that’s progressed to something that’s under broader consideration,” Minkevitch said.
“An opportunity to participate has presented itself," he said. "This might not have been on any city’s particular agenda, but when it was brought to their attention, they realized there was something they can do and it just makes sense.”
Regardless where people last lived, there are costs associated with providing shelter, food, medical and mental health care and substance abuse services.
Salt Lake City’s funding for facilities and services — not counting the ongoing costs of law enforcement and emergency medical services — exceeded $4.3 million over the past four years.
Most of the funding comes from federal sources, which could be used for other purposes, said the mayor’s spokesman, Art Raymond, but the city has elected to support more than a dozen organizations that provide direct or supportive services for homeless individuals and families. The city also appropriates about $60,000 from its general fund to help support Catholic Community Services' Weigand Homeless Day Center.
Salt Lake City Police Sgt. Michelle Ross said the department spends about 25 percent of its resources serving the core downtown area, which includes Pioneer Park, homeless service providers, shopping malls, bars and restaurants.
Service providers also receive financial support from the state, Salt Lake County and a handful of local governments such as Midvale, home to The Road Home’s winter overflow shelter. Nonprofit providers also conduct extensive fundraising campaigns and seek grants to support their efforts.
The Road Home’s intake data also indicates that homeless services in Salt Lake serve a considerable number clients whose last addresses were in Weber, Davis, Tooele and Utah counties, bolstering Becker’s and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams’ analysis that the resources are regional in nature.
At some point, Becker said, it may also be appropriate to reach out to those counties to do more to shoulder the responsibility of caring for the poor and homeless.
Because Utah's collaborative approach in addressing chronic homelessness has been highly successful, it is frequently held up as national model, Becker said.
Rates of chronic homelessness in Utah have been reduced more than 72 percent since 2005, according to a 2012 report. This is largely due to “rapid rehousing” initiatives, as well as establishing hundreds of units of permanent supportive housing.
People considered chronically homeless are placed in apartments and other housing and surrounded with supportive services. While some will never achieve self-sufficiency, taxpayers realize savings because housing alone eliminates the revolving door of prison, emergency rooms and emergency shelter resources.
As Minkevitch explains, taxpayers are going to pay for these people in any event. “What’s the best bang for the buck?”
But dialogue over the future presence of homeless service providers in downtown Salt Lake City will continue as commercial interests continue to develop in the area, Becker said.
The Road Home has a conditional-use permit to use St. Vincent de Paul's dining room as an overflow shelter. The permit expires in 2015, which will likely reinvigorate debate.
As successful as the agencies are, they pose economic development challenges for the city, Becker said.
"I know that it affects us in a very significant way in terms of economic development in that part of downtown. The (Redevelopment Agency) has focus some attention between the Rio Grande terminal and intermodal hub. It is a big issue for folks who look at possibly developing at in that area. That's real for us as a city," he said.
But relocating any of the services presents other challenges. Where would they go? Who would pay to replicate the facilities elsewhere? Presently, at least one provider, Fourth Street Clinic, is in the midst of expanding its facilities.
As they are currently situated, the services offer cost-effective alternatives to more expensive “fixes” to specific issues. Instead of taking people to emergency rooms or calling out paramedics, the city can dispatch EMTs when it receives a call for someone who is intoxicated.
It makes more sense to transport that person to the Volunteers of America social detox facility than book them into the Salt Lake County Jail, Becker said. The jail is already dealing with a significant number of suspects who are intoxicated when they are booked into jail.
A 2011 report on Salt Lake County’s criminal and social justice system, determined 66 percent of people booked for misdemeanor offenses are intoxicated at the time of booking.
“There are times if people need to go to jail, they need to go to jail. There are times people are so impaired, they need to go to detox,” Ross said.
But the city's community policing practices have fostered close working relationships with service providers, which have benefitted both, she said.
"We have the ability to divert people where they can get the help they need," Ross said. "Not every contact requires that a person go to jail. We like to take a more holistic approach, try to get to root cause of behavior. Why is this behavior continuing? Then we can hopefully divert them to programs they’re eligible for but they’re not taking advantage of. That’s what we would like.”
Becker said he expects the public dialogue about homeless services will be ongoing.
"It's an issue that's not going to go away in terms of whether these facilities should be relocated," he said. "It's also very much a part of being a major urban area, as we are. It's also critically important that we take care of the most vulnerable in our society. Certainly, our homeless population leads the way in that. Looking forward, I don't the issue is going to go away."